[ Well, it seems that no-one else has volunteered to write-up our trip to France, so it looks like I’ll have to… Ed. Also, some photos from this trip are here.]

Dom had arranged a trip to the Briancon area, and chosen to stay at the same campsite we have for the last few years. Over the preceding few months, a motley crew of paddlers were assembled, each choosing to complicate things by trying a variety of paddling dates, and transport methods. In the end, a total of 17 paddlers were in the group, some staying for the whole 2 weeks, some driving down for the first week, some flying out for the first week with their boats and hiring a car, some driving for the second week, and yet more flying for the second week. However, all the transport arrangements seemed to have worked well, so we can now assume that it is actually possible to take a kayak successfully on an airline.

Paddlers were: Dom, Mackey, Teresa, Nick (Kiwi), Mat, Baldrick, Matt, Jim, Nick (non-Kiwi), Dave (Spooner), Ian, Sam, Lisa F, Tim, Conor, Lisa G, Martin.

In a reverse to the accepted pragmatism, all of the keenest paddlers seemed to be scheduled in the first week, with the more laid-back paddlers arriving for the second week. This meant that the usual ‘gentle warm-up’ technique didn’t really apply. When I (a ‘laid-back’ paddler) arrived on the Thursday evening, it seemed that they had run all of the main rivers already. We heard stories of carnage on the Middle Guil. And we heard more stories of carnage on the Middle Guil. And yet more. You get the picture. You’d have thought that Dom, who’d enjoyed some carnage on the Middle Guil two years ago, might have known better, but obviously not.

And just for good measure, Nick (non-Kiwi) had managed to dislocate his shoulder on the Onde, albeit briefly. He’d put it back in, waited a day, and was paddling again! (Braver man than me – I’ve suffered 5 dislocations myself…)

In a fit of unlikely enthusiasm, given that we’d just spent around 12 hours in a car driving down through France, a bunch of us decided to do a warm up paddle that evening from the slalom course at Argentiere straight down to the campsite. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever got on to a river at around 6pm. But at least it made me feel that I’d properly arrived.

We all met up on the Thursday evening at the bar by the nearby lake, and were treated to some beer (obviously) and some attempted humour by the French waiter trying out his English. Lisa F impressed us all by her fluent French (well, it is certainly fluent when compared to mine…). Nick and the other keen paddlers were avidly discussing their choices of hard rivers for the next day. The newly arrived laid-back paddlers where avidly discussing their choices of easy rivers for the next day. We established that Teresa hadn’t paddled the official ‘sunshine run’ yet (partly because there hadn’t been much sunshine…), so that was chosen. There were 17 of us in total, so plenty of opportunity to get confused about who was paddling with who.

Our warm-up trip on the sunshine run was mostly uneventful, except that the three supposedly most capable paddlers all managed to roll within the first 10 minutes. We’d looked at the Rabioux wave first, and decided it was fine to paddle straight though, but it still managed to get me and Tim. When we arrived at the play-wave at Embrun at the end of the trip, it was much bigger than I remembered. I skirted around the edge of it, but Lisa led Teresa straight through the middle. Teresa then demonstrated a hidden skill in reverse-surfing and finally back-looping; shame it wasn’t on video…

On Friday evening we all re-assembled and heard tales of the keen group’s fun on the Middle Claree. Baldrick had found the same undercut that Lisa G had found two years ago, though by the descriptions Baldrick had a nasty time of it, and was quite lucky to make it out of there at all. We looked at this again later the next week, when the river was lower, and it is certainly a very nasty place to be.

The keen paddlers were obviously getting tired by this time. After having paddled the Claree and the Briancon gorge, they headed off to the Gyr. Some of them paddled it, but understandably some gave it a miss. It will still be there next year…

On the Saturday, Nick teamed up with the Taunton mob to paddle the Chateau Queyras section of the Guil. Nick managed to swim on the last stopper (the piste-basher stopper!) and bashed his head, but fair play to him for paddling it – none of the rest of us did… The rest of the keen mob spent the day doing Via-Ferrata, while the easy mob did the Gyronde and the Onde (fast!). Saturday evening was marked by a very drunken (but slow) meal at a local restaurant, to ensure that the airport mob would be flying with hangovers. Jim was in fine form, and probably deserved the worst hangover.

From Sunday onwards, Nick, Mat, Dom, and Mackey had to change down a gear. We turned more into a ‘gentle paddling’ group. We spent the next few days doing the easier rivers. Sometimes Teresa decided that her mountain bike was more suitable than her kayak. But we all had fun anyway.

Teresa had been hoping to do some rafting, and was persuaded that the Ubaye Racecourse would be an excellent choice. Various initial attempts to book onto a trip failed, but eventually Teresa managed, with minutes to spare, to get onto a raft trip along with a bunch of Flemish cyclists. We arrived at the river later, just as she finished, to find Teresa whooping for joy about the fun she’d had, and that she hadn’t fallen off the raft, unlike all of the other paddlers. As we prepared to get on, with the river at a medium-high level, Teresa described the huge holes, rocks, pour-overs, and stoppers they had hit and/or missed. This provided a suitable nervousness-inducing introduction for the rest of us…

In the event the river was pretty tricky – a fast, high volume grade 4, apparently much more technical and difficult than it had been a week earlier in higher water. Nick aptly demonstrated his graduation from the club’s Accelerated Beginner’s Course by leading us all down the river, in true club style (i.e. little stopping and few break-outs). We passed other groups having various epics, including three guys from the Midlands, who we’d given a car-shuttle to, one with a huge gash in his forehead, and a large group from Sheffield University, with multiple swimmers. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the Ubaye Racecourse certainly qualifies as my choice of the best river out in France. The only other time I’ve managed to paddle it was 11 years ago!

The next day the group split into a biking contingent and a paddling contingent. The paddlers headed off to the Durance Gorge, encouraged by the description of the perils from the guidebook. Dom had paddled it before. Martin produced a swim in the lead-in to the gorge, and wisely decided to walk-out while it was still possible. The others paddled the river without further incident.

Teresa, Conor, Lisa, and Mackey decided to try some downhill cycling. We hired mountain-bikes from Briancon, cycled up along the river (lower) Guisane to the Serre Chevalier cable car, and arrived just in time for a pre-lunch trip up the mountain, followed by a fast descent. An enforced lunch gap in the cable car timings provided us with the opportunity to sample a French café for lunch. We headed back up the cable car crammed together with 40-ish French old ladies on an outing; they happily tried chatting us all up, and seemed to find the whole idea fascinating… We managed a trip down from the very top in just over an hour, followed by some interesting single-track along the river bank. Finally we were just in time for a last trip back up the cable car, plus some hard uphill cycling (pushing!), ready for another long downhill. All in all, we managed over 2600m of vertical descent, in about 6 hours… Excellent fun, and well worth doing another time.

On our last paddling day we were determined to get Teresa onto something to test her but also let her enjoy herself. We therefore decided to do the Gyronde again, but this time we started higher up, just below the grade 6 blockage. Nick, Lisa, and Mackey started highest up, then the rest of us. As they appeared around the corner, it looked like this might be a bit too hard for Teresa, but no, she was on the water now, and it seemed that there was no stopping her! A fast and furious section of grade 3+ led down past Stuart Woodward’s Canoe Control campsite, and then settled out to grade 2-3. Teresa coped admirably, and certainly had a huge grin on her face. An excellent way to finish the trip.

Most of the rest of us took the opportunity to do a second run down the Onde; again, it is great to run a river a second time, because you can concentrate on having fun rather than worrying about what might be coming up. This last day was then finished off, for those who had any energy left, by a play on the wave at Embrun.

Tim and Lisa F had the foresight to bring some climbing gear with them, and over the two weeks various different groups tried their hand at Via Ferrata. This is climbing with fixed safety ropes, and (mostly) with metal hand-holds and occasional metal steps. Some tried the ‘PD’ sections (peu dificile – little difficulty), or ‘D’. I myself tried an ‘F’ (facile – easy). I’ve never really done any climbing before, and this was certainly enough for me. I don’t normally find myself half way up a 50m cliff, with just a few metal bars to hold on to. But many thanks to Lisa F, Teresa, and Lisa G for taking me along, and of course to Tim for providing most of the kit. Some of the other groups did the route which crosses the end of the Durance Gorge, which must certainly be spectacular. I’m sure they’ll tell you all about it if you ask (or perhaps a magazine article for later?).

We had been instructed not to keep any ‘traditional’ swim tallies, so I don’t know what any totals were. But some people deserve special mention. Congratulations must certainly go to Martin for swimming so rarely (twice?) given that he only started paddling six months ago; Martin has huge promise, and has the guts to try hard, so will go far. Nick, of course, has now finished the ABC, and is doing fantastically well. Teresa did wonderfully, and I’m sure will head out to France again. Mat is also now one of the club’s best paddlers, but don’t follow his line… Baldrick deserves the award for losing the most kit.

Other notable points:-

  • Nick is certainly your man when it comes to campfires; he almost single-handedly kept the fire stocked and alight, aided mostly by Mackey.
  • Those of us on the second week must be chided for not drinking enough beer; we were told by those there for both weeks that the consumption was far higher on the first week.
  • Dom gets the award for choosing a closed campsite yet again – still no shop open, nor bar open in the neighbouring campsite, nor restaurant in the village.
  • Students – why aren’t they rowdy? Yet again, we meet a very meek group, from Salford Univ, who were camping next to us. They hardly ventured out past the lake for the first week, and didn’t seem to be drinking enough to be able to blame any hangovers.
  • Mackey gets the award for getting me into the police station, covered in dust from cycling, while waiting to report his lost camera.
  • Reg gets the award for being most elusive – we tried to meet up a couple of times with Reg’s group, who were staying in Briancon. All attempts failed, until we bumped into them at the top of the mountain on our biking day.
  • Finally – don’t try to paddle the Embrun wave on the morning that you leave the campsite, after a heavy night the evening before. Four ‘intrepid’ paddlers attempted this (I myself stayed in the tent), but none seemed to have the energy to get properly onto the wave.

These are the various river sections done over the two weeks. Obviously not all of these were done by everyone…
Durance, slalom to campsite. Lower Guil and Durance to Rabioux. Onde. Upper Guisane. Briancon Gorge. Lower Guisane. Briancon Gorge. Lower Guisane. Middle Guil. Upper Ubaye. Ubaye Racecourse. Durance, slalom to campsite. Durance sunshine run. Middle Claree. Briancon Gorge. Gyr. Gyronde. Onde. Chateau Queyras. Via Ferrata. Upper Guisane. Lower Guisane. Upper Guil. Briancon Gorge. Middle Claree. Lower Claree. Ubaye Racecourse. Embrun wave. Durance Gorge. Mountain biking at Serre Chevalier. Gyronde. Onde. Embrun wave.

Some photos from this trip are here.